Building a Winning Game Plan, Part III: Dallas' Red Zone Defense

In part three of the series, I look at the defense's red-zone ratings and find that the defense was not directly responsible for the dropoff in red zone performance.  This dropoff was a team effort.

The Importance of Possessions

Working through Brian Billick's guidelines, I'm learning that red-zone efficiency does not offer a direct correlation to winning.  You can't look at the top ten teams and see the playoff field represented.  For instance, last year's 0-16 Lions ranked fifth overall in offensive red-zone efficiency. 

 

Conversely, several of the dominant teams like the Giants and Eagles rated mid-pack, like the '07 Cowboys

Is the stat worthless? No, but one red-zone stat is more informative than others.  Possession stats give a much clearer idea of who's winning and who is losing.  That should make sense.  If a team is getting more scoring opportunities than its opponent it will likely win on the scoreboard more often than not.

 

The Cowboys took steps back on offense and defense.  Look at the turnaround from '07 to '08:

Red Zone Possessions 2007 2008
Offense 56 44
Defense 44 56

 

 

 

 

A complete flip.  Dallas has a +12 red zone possession ratio when it was 13-3.  It was -12 when it dropped to 9-7.

What's responsible for this defensive drop?  Dallas' defensive red zone rankings were quite good last year:

2007 2008
Possessions 44 56
Touchdowns 22 26
Field Goals 15 26
TD rank T-9th T-13th
FG rank T-13th T-31st
Scoring % rank 11th 27th
TD % rank 10th 6th

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We can see the damage caused when the possessions-allowed balloons by a dozen.  Dallas surrendered touchdowns at a lower rate but gave up four more overall because teams got inside the Cowboys' 20 so often. Only five teams allowed more red zone possessions than the Cowboys' 56.  As you might guess, those five -- the Lions, Chiefs, Saints, Broncos and Jets -- joined Dallas as playoffs spectators.

But what caused the increase?  The Cowboys ranked better in pass defense.  They had a better rush.  They ranked better in yards allowed, and were better in passing yards allowed.  Did the team fall apart on 3rd down? 

No.  Dallas 3rd down % improved from 39.1 in 2007 to 36.4 last year.  The team was not worse at getting off the field.

The cause is likely a combination of increased Dallas turnovers and the meltdown of the coverage teams.  The Cowboys had the worst kickoff team in terms of distance and was one of the worst in opponent's starting field position.  The teams punting average dropped when Mat McBriar went on IR. 

Two games show how sub-par coverage and turnovers can make a defense look bad.  In week five the Cowboys were blowing out Cincinnati.  Just before the half, Tony Romo fumbled when being chased out of the pocket.  A fifteen yard penalty on Marion Barber set up Cincinnati just outside the red zone.  The defense stiffened inside the 20, but the short field gifted the Bengals a field goal.  

In the third quarter, one play after Dallas had scored on a long Romo-to-T.O. pass, the kickoff team gave up a 60 yard return.  Cincinnati started on the Cowboys' 37 and just a couple of minutes later nullified the Cowboys' six.

A more egregious example came against Pittsburgh.  Romo tossed a pick at his own 27 just before the half.  The defense kept the Steelers out of the end zone but Pittsburgh got three.  In the fourth, the punt return team gave up a 35 yard return, after a 37 yard punt.  The two yard net set the Steelers up on the Dallas 25.  Dallas prevented a first down but the Steelers dented the red zone and claimed a second field goal.  Add a late Romo pick-six and the offense and special teams gift wrapped thirteen of Pittsburgh's 20 points.

The defense had great red zone stats.  They allowed just one touchdown drive, and stopped a second on downs inside the five.  Pittsburgh's red zone TD success rate was just 25%, but two would likely not have occurred with better ball custody.

In both cases, the defense's red zone stats were inflated through no fault of their own.  But nine extra Cowboys turnovers and repeated punt and kickoff breakdowns meant too many short fields. 

Joe DeCamillis was brought in to improve the coverage schemes.  A host of rookies who excelled on special teams will give DeCamillis a chance to improve field position.  The team is talking a good game about turnovers.  Can these areas be improved?

A return to the playoff field should be the reward for improvement.  Failure likely means another frustrating 9-7.

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